The End Of The Janus Presidency

As electoral events unfolded in Florida he may have felt like the most overlooked man on earth. And yet his essence is always with us. Why did the either/or of this suspended-animation contest feel oddly familiar? Perhaps because it came at the tail end of a presidency that has always been characterized by dueling dichotomies: the Janus presidency, two-faced like the ancient deity. The idealistic Clinton, and the calculating one. The Clinton who elevated women, and the one who pursued them. The Clinton who stood fast on abortion, and the one who caved on gays in the military. The Clinton who was eloquent, and the Clinton who was deceitful. William Jefferson Clinton, and just plain Bill. What a pair.

Now the most careless, gifted, infuriating, empathetic, polarizing, political president in recent memory finds himself with one last chance to follow the better angels of his nature, since, for the first time in his adult life, he does not have to tailor his actions to suit the voters. The issue is the death penalty, and it has shadowed the president since 1992 when, on his way to the White House, he oversaw the execution of a mentally impaired man. Eight momentous years later, and he winds up with the life of yet another convicted murderer in his hands; the first federal execution in almost 40 years is scheduled to be held in the waning days of the Clinton administration. Will the president choose to bookend his years in office with institutionalized bloodshed, or will he call a halt to a process that has become so arbitrary and biased as to be discredited beyond repair?

You've heard those stories about the gentle, thoughtful man who is unjustly accused of a horrific crime, who molders on death row reading his Bible, who is finally freed with the help of DNA evidence, who emerges blinking into the sunlight of innocence as his family weeps and cheers. This isn't one of them. Juan Garza is a migrant worker who, in the course of a second career as a drug smuggler, killed three men. There is no need for the customary "alleged" in that sentence. As his clemency petition states in the second sentence, "Mr. Garza accepts responsibility for these crimes."

Garza is not only an admitted murderer, but one unlucky enough to have hit the demographic lottery, at least if your idea of a grand prize is to die by lethal injection. He is both Hispanic and from Texas. A damning Justice Department survey released earlier this year found that in the last five years nearly 80 percent of those charged with federal crimes punishable by death were minorities. The current composition of federal death row reflects that: 17 of the 21 inmates are black or, like Garza, Hispanic. And six of them are from a single state: Texas, the execution capital of America. These racial and geographic disparities are the basis for a call for a moratorium on federal executions. Both the NAACP and the American Bar Association support one. So do Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, Elie Wiesel, the financier George Soros, several Catholic bishops and some former senators, all of whom were signatories of a letter sent to the president last week. They use the Justice Department study to support their plea, just as the attorneys for Garza have used it to support the petition for clemency.

But perhaps this historic moment is an opportunity to look at the larger picture, and the Garza execution a perfect test case because the man himself, spectacularly unsympathetic, forces the focus from personalities to principles. Perhaps it is a good moment to think of executions in terms of what they do to citizens rather than criminals. Simply put, the system makes monkeys of us. Nearly a quarter century after the death penalty was reinstated, it's a dismal failure from the point of view of deterrence; after all, if it worked, Texas would be the safest state in the nation, rather than one with a skyrocketing murder rate. In fact, an analysis of homicide statistics in The New York Times found conclusively that the murder rate in states that had the death penalty was no lower than in those that did not.

So the killing is for nothing, except for secondhand vengeance, which is a low human emotion, somewhere between envy and greed. It demeans those meting out the punishment. Look at the circumstances under which most civilized people agree it is acceptable to kill: self-defense and combat. In both cases killing is considered permissible because there is no other choice, no other path to self-preservation. But there is another choice in the punishment of murderers, although apparently it is most often reserved for Caucasians. As Garza's lawyers write in his clemency petition, "A sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of release would fully serve the ends of justice."

With his clemency petition on the president's desk, Garza stands poised between a handful of days before darkness and endless years behind bars. But the president stands poised, too, between an oversimplified public view of justice and a moral decision that will lead to precious few public plaudits. While the men who would be him argue through surrogates about dimpled chads, he has matters of life and death to decide. Maybe at this moment it will be possible to discern whether politicking has become the habit of a lifetime, whether conscience has so given way to consensus that for the rest of his days it will be impossible for him to order a grilled McChicken sandwich if he suspects that people prefer the Quarter Pounder. He should call for a moratorium on federal executions to study the obvious bias in the system, and commute the sentences of those now awaiting death to life in prison without parole. One of those men is Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber; the outcry, surely, would be enormous. But the president need never run for office again, and so he can follow his considerable intellect and his legendary empathy to the inescapable conclusion that executions make murderers of us all. William Jefferson would surely know that. But Bill? Ah, well, you can never tell with Bill.